During the Vietnam War, I was one of the fortunate young men of draft age who saw through the lies and hypocrisy that surrounded the violence against a small, agrarian nation. Vietnam wanted— after centuries of occupation by the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, the French reprised, and the Americans — to determine its own destiny through democratic means.
Support Our Troops / Bring Them Home
The Vietnamese, after so many battles for independence, called our twisted invasion simply “The American War.” Back home, many young men mistook the Vietnam war as a struggle similar to the “good war” our parents had fought against fascism in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific.
During the Vietnam war, all men between the ages of 18 and 26 were required to register with the Selective Service and were subject to recruitment into the U.S. army. Once drafted, we would be trained and stamped as G.I.s, short for “Government Issue.”
There were plenty of exceptions, but the draft hung over most males during the war years. As the war grew, anti-war protest grew. Many of us refused to go through the military induction process that stamped us as “Government Issue — GIs — as if we were pieces of meat, trained to kill.
As the war cycled through recruits and draftees, soldiers who had fought in Vietnam began to return home. Amidst the growing protests, war-weary soldiers often disembarked at American airports to be greeted by their friends, families and — so the myth goes — antiwar protesters who spat on the veterans and called them “baby killers.”
The spitting myth flies in the face of the deep understanding that most of our generation shared — that a large percentage of returning veterans had been drafted into the war against their will, their beliefs, and their everyday lives.
Contrary to the implications of the spitting, baby-killer myth, support for the troops in Vietnam became a powerful position in the antiwar movement. “Support the troops Bring them home” became a familiar slogan, sign, and bumper sticker.
One Vietnam vet, a sociology professor named Jerry Lembcke began to research the spit myth. As a returning vet, he had never experienced any negative sentiment from antiwar protestors and could find no credible instances of anti-war activists spitting on veterans. Instead, he found what we activists already knew, that a supportive, empathetic relationship grew quickly and deeply between veterans and anti-war forces. Together, protestors and vets exposed government and military leaders as the real villains, not the returning “grunts,” as Vietnam-era soldiers were called.
G.I. coffee houses sprung up outside military bases, refuges where soldiers could relax, meet antiwar activists and returned veterans, leaf through the proliferation of underground newspapers, and just hang out.
In 1971, while the war was in full swing, hundreds of Vietnam veterans gathered outside Nixon’s White House, and threw their medals over the walls and gates that had been erected to protect the war’s perpetrators from angry protesters. These vets did not want to be rewarded for what they had done in Vietnam.
In 1998, Lembke published The Spitting Image, where he reported his findings. The Spitting Image also describes the Nixon administration’s perpetration of the spitting myth as a tool to drive a wedge between military service members and the anti-war movement by portraying democratic dissent as a betrayal of the troops.
So, let’s not simply celebrate the “service” of the U.S. military as a force for extending American policy abroad, to increase our “national security” — whatever that is. A military presence anywhere can protect and serve or create horrendous violence and injustice. And in the spirit of Veterans Day, let’s respect the reality that military action and service can wreak terrible damage on the men and women who enforce our presence in the world.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.